Would you like Mexican ice on your cuts? 

Gail Brown reports from the first in a series of salon discussions at the Tate and wonders whether the debate did anything to advance the cause of the arts in times of public spending cuts. A flag for culture, anyone?

Can culture and the arts actually bring people together?

If we thought last month was exciting with the country acquiring a hung parliament, we now have the drawn and quartered bits with a budget that promised cuts and outlined savings that will bring more than just discomfort. Something that promised to lighten the mood was the first in the salon series presented by Sky Arts and Artichoke at the Tate, an event that professed to be “a public conversation about the nature and use of public space” with the subtitle “the politics of cultural disruption”. Unfortunately it was more like a rather odd indoor festival, with challenging acoustics, huge variation in sound quality and over 300 audience members perched on small cushions on the floor of the sloped entrance to the Tate. It was hard to decide whether the audience were more distracted by their collective downhill slalom that gradually gathered pace or the panels’ inability to answer direct questions. At points it was as if the panel were responding to an entirely different event and set of questions. By my reckoning at least one in five of the sliding onlookers checked their programme to see if they were in the right room.

The disjunction between audience and panel was particularly evident when the 24th commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Ian – now expert on strategic policing and security – Blair chose to completely ignore a question from the floor,  telling the audience that he didn’t get to answer the previous one so he thought he’d do that instead. Come again? The debate moved on to inclusively, diversity and making sure that everyone feels, or has a sense that, art in the public realm belongs to them. In response to this debate, and perhaps thinking this was an answer an arts audience expected, Blair unwittingly upset the vast majority of people in the room by referring to one artist’s work as being created by a “young black guy who made sculpture out of melted-down guns”. Such a response sets the cultural infrastructure back 50 years and would seem to show that while you can take the man out of the uniform, bureaucratic blindness is alive and well. 

There was some light relief in the comforting London tones of Janet Street Porter, who reminded the audience that art ought to be challenging, at times elitist and not “plebsville”. A fair point, agreed Sarah Gaventa, director of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), who implored the powers that be to treat us like responsible adults and apply “health and safety” proportionately to people who at home do crazy things like boil water in kettles, use knives to prepare food. Gaventa was adamant that positive risk was appropriate and indeed needed when it came to the use of public space. Otherwise, she argued, we risk bringing up a nation of kids who think that the springy rubber playgrounds they frequent are a metaphor for life: if you fall down, the ground will just bounce you back up again. Ta Da!

At the moment the UK could do with a bit of a bounce in its step, with VAT being pushed up to 20% and, in the world of culture, Arts Council England being subjected to significant in-year savings. At least the sun has come out to cheer everybody up and the streets are filled with happy Britons, although – at the time of writing – this may have had less to do with the sun and more do to with the World Cup, an oasis of companionship and understanding that has brought Britain together. There is an ongoing debate about the World Cup and it relates to the “We played well today” mentality. Did you indeed? Did you play on the pitch, were you in the game, did you score? A World Cup football fan is a strange hybrid of the devout and opportunist, a fan that comes along once every four years and gets behind the team, buys into the culture of the game and befriends the perfect stranger beside him in the local drinking hole, a stranger he would have ignored or insulted a few weeks before. What is that all about and will it be possible to achieve the same for the Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad? Seriously, what is it about football that makes the majority of the country unite at the prospect of bringing home a trophy and how will the cultural and arts sector achieve the same? 

Can the UK be as excited about “bringing home” anything other than a sporting trophy, or even a plethora of cultural medals? Can you imagine hearing any of the following?

“Did you see any of the performances at this year’s British Dance Edition? What a result for dance, good choreographers, strong teams of dancers, excellent technique, not a foul dance move in sight!”

“Brilliant. I’m more in favour of the developing festival groups myself. They’re young now and their game is a bit naive, pulling all sorts of dodgy theatre pieces, faking falling off the edge of a stage and the death of the artists’ marches is badly devised but come one! I know some of them just want their Equity cards, but give them another couple of seasons and they could be like the Edinburgh Fringe… genius.”

“That Ruth Mackenzie seems to be pulling through all right. I heard she gives artists a right going over in the dressing rooms, nice as pie in the green room though.”

“I wonder if Tracey Emin will qualify in the visual art heats, there’s a lot of new talent out there. Couple of years to come though eh? All those artists, tourists and visitors filling the UK with crazy musical instruments and fashion. You’d be mad to miss it.”

“Have you heard the London 2012 song, quite catchy, thank goodness they haven’t got Frank Skinner singing on it though; he should definitely stick to what he’s good at!  Do you fancy some Mexican ice with your gin and tonic? I thought that artist was brilliant; oh what was his name… erm Francis something… fancy pushing a block of ice for, how long was it?”

“Alys and it was 9 hours, through Mexico City. Amazing. I reckon Cameron would have loved a bit of that ice to take the sting out of his budget cuts, if you know what I mean; localism is it he wants… Oooof, did you see that? That’s a new flag for culture; I’ve lost count of the cars with them on, rivals the world cup I reckon. Oh here’s the advert for the Cultural Olympiad. Corking… song sticks in your head though… culture’s coming home.”

Now that is a conversation to have while sitting in the sunshine and befriending the perfect stranger beside you and wouldn’t it be fantastic if the stranger beside you was Mr Cameron with a cheque book.


Gail Brown is chair of advocacy and research for the National Association of Local Government Arts Officers

The Leisure Review, July 2010

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“I wonder if Tracey Emin will qualify in the visual art heats, there’s a lot of new talent out there. Couple of years to come though, eh?”

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